On a lovely Saturday morning, Leslie and I drove into Wellington. Our destination was Wrights Hill Fortress in Karori, a World War II-era defensive complex. The embassy had arranged for a private tour.
We arrived early, well before any of the rest of our group. We hiked from the parking lot to the top of the hill. The view was commanding. It is no wonder the Kiwis picked that particular hill to place three 9.2-inch guns. The projectiles fired from the guns weighed in at 380 pounds. Amazingly, those projectiles could travel 18 miles (30 kilometers).
At 135 tons, each of the guns was very heavy. The barrels alone were a hefty 28 tons. One has to marvel at just how they got such massive pieces up to the hill and into place. The actual installation of two of the guns was in 1944. The third gun was never installed. As it turns out, the guns were never fired at the Japanese because the war ended. The two weapons were test-fired in 1946 and 1947, firing three rounds from each. The guns required twenty men to operate.
By the mid-1950s, the fortress was mothballed. It sat deteriorating until 1988 when the Karori Lions Club took on the task of caring for and restoring the installation. The guns themselves are long gone. As noted on the fortress’s website, the arms were ironically sold to Japan for scrap. The three gun emplacements are connected underground by nearly one-half mile of tunnels. Some of the tubes seemed to go on forever. Our guide took us through many of the tunnels. At several locations, there are historical displays that allow one to get a better idea of how the fortress operated.
One of the more interesting rooms was the generator room. Inside, there are two old 185 horsepower diesel generators that used to supply power to operate the guns. They are no longer in working order, but the volunteers seem keen to bring them back to life. With the technology available in the mid-1940s, it must have been deafening in the generator room when they were in use.
There was another room filled with several old, rusted items. That room was used in the filming of a recent horror film. Our guide told us the name of the film, but I had never heard of it, nor did I remember the name.
St. Petersburg, Russian Federation – July 13, 2015
We docked at St. Petersburg, Russia this morning. At breakfast, Leslie and I commented that we would never have guessed we would ever visit Russia, but here we are!
This morning, we were part of orange group #1, our tour group for our visit to the Hermitage Museum. Before we got on the bus, we all had to go through passport control. It was not necessarily a breeze. The immigration officer looked closely at us. She even motioned to my passport photo in which I sported a goatee and then pointed at my now clean-shaven face. In addition to our passports, she also demanded to see our ship excursion tickets. Those essentially acted as our Russian visas. Ultimately, even though she seemed a little cranky, she did stamp both of our passports. We thought it was cool getting that entry stamp. Leslie, Lorraine, Arlene, and I boarded the tour bus. Leslie and I lucked out and got two of the front seats. That made it helpful for taking photos on the way. It was one of several buses lined up at the cruise depot. By 09:00, we began our journey to the museum. On the way, our guide told us St. Petersburg enjoys only about 60 days of sunshine each year. That is precisely the opposite of Colorado, which enjoys approximately 300 days of sun each year. Our day was nice. It was not until later in the day when we returned to the ship that we encountered some raindrops.
After about 30 minutes on the bus, we arrived at the museum. The Louvre in Paris, France, has long been my favorite museum, but that may be in jeopardy now. At the Hermitage, in addition to the museum, one also walks through an awe-inspiring palace. The other fact that sways me is that one of my favorite paintings is at the Hermitage, The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. The only downside is the size of the exhibit area does not comfortably allow for viewing when the museum is crowded.
When we arrived, our guide shared that we were in luck. We were entering the museum about an hour before it opened to the public. That meant we had many portions of the museum virtually to ourselves. That worked out well for my photography.
The museum is just over 250 years old, founded by Catherine the Great. The palace consists of six different buildings. We walked through five of them; the Winter Palace, Small Palace, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage, and the Hermitage Theater. The buildings total over 2.5 million square feet of space. The ornate decorations in each building and the displayed artwork are just incredible.
We entered the museum through the main Winter Palace door facing the Neva River. It took a little while to get our entire group through the turnstiles; however, once we did, we met the very ornate staircase known as the Ambassadors’ Stairs. When an ambassador visited the Tsar or Empress, they ascended the Ambassador’s Stairs. I am unclear on whether the audience took place in the Peter the Great Throne Room or the St. George Hall. Regardless, they were both stunning spaces.
Departing the upper landing of the Ambassadors Staircase, we entered the Field Marshal’s Room. While it was impressive, it may have been the least remarkable space we saw that day. One may come to that opinion simply because the decorations are quite muted, not so ornate, and over the top, as some of the other spaces in the museum.
Most notable in the Field Marshal’s Room is the massive chandeliers. They each weigh a jaw-dropping two tons; 4,000 pounds! Several members of our group stood under the lights until our guide related that the chandeliers did fall once. That was enough to get everyone to clear the space.
The Peter the Great Throne Room was a little more intimate than the vast expanse of the St. George Hall. The throne room had an intricate parquet and wood inlaid floor. The walls were a warm, but dark red. That red echoed in the throne dais carpet and the upholstery of the throne itself, displaying the double-headed imperial eagle on the back, an imposing figure. The ceiling consisted of arches and coffers with hints of gold leaf. It was elegant.
Leaving the Small Throne Room, we walked into the amazingly ornate Armorial Hall. The amount of gold in the hall defies description. There was so much gold in the room that there was a gold hue throughout.
At one part of the hall, one could see through the doorway toward the throne in the St. George Hall. It is hard to imagine the numbers of staff that must have been required to make this Winter Palace a place to live and receive guests. Had I been alive in that era and in the St. Petersburg area, I am more than confident I would have never been able to set foot in the palace.
Comparing the Winter Palace living areas to the Napoleon Apartment in the Louvre in Paris is like comparing Versailles to a studio apartment in New York City. There is just no possible comparison between the two.
Even though we could see the throne in the St. George Hall, there was yet one more room to traverse; the Military Gallery. It is a long, narrow room. It is sometimes referred to as the War Gallery of 1812. The walls have dozens of paintings, all approximately the same size, of war heroes involved in the defeat of Napoleon. The entire tour group made quick work of the visit and moved on the hall.
The St. George Hall was an immense and massive space of approximately 800 square meters. That translates to about 8,500 square feet. That is more than three times the size of the average American home. A large dais, throne, and canopy dominated the east end of the hall. The throne seemed to be an exact duplicate of the throne in the Small Throne Room, including the imperial eagle. Behind the throne hung a large red banner from the canopy with an equally large imperial eagle. The ornate white and gilded ceiling soared two-stories above the floor.
Leaving St. George Hall, our group wound through some smaller spaces, ultimately stopping in Pavilion Hall. Intimate and two-stories do not necessarily go together, but this space was genuinely intimate. Dominating this hall is the 18th-Century Gold Peacock Clock. The clock is behind a glass covering. The peacock is life-size, as well as the cockerel and the owl. With such large creatures in the clock, one might think the clock face is large too, wrong. The hidden clock face is actually in a small mushroom. The automated birds originally went through a series of movements every hour. My understanding is that the clock now moves only a few times a year. That is to keep from wearing out the mechanical parts. Even though we did not see it move, it was an impressive piece.
We ended up in the Old Dutch Masters area shortly after leaving Pavilion Hall. That is where we began seeing painters copying various paintings. They had easels, stools, and drop cloths set up. We quickly saw a dozen or more painters. Our guide shared that it was a big test for the art students through one of the local universities. I could barely take photographs of the paintings; I know there is no way I could copy one with a brush. Their talent was amazing.
Our next viewing was the Italian Renaissance area of the museum. Below are some of the works that caught my attention. In this area of the museum, we found more art students copying paintings.
Another unusual feature of the Hermitage is the Raphael Loggia. It is a relatively narrow hall, but it is around 20 feet tall. Some call the loggia Raphael’s Bible. That is because Raphael painted several stories from the Bible in this loggia.
Below, in no particular order, are some of the other sights we saw in the Hermitage Museum. The narrative continues well below the photos.
The Hermitage is just like the Louvre in one respect; there is no way one can see everything. We did see many more works of art. When we emerged from the Hermitage, we saw a sea of people waiting to enter. We were glad we went when we did. We walked across the street toward the Neva River, onto our bus, and then back to the ship.
Back on the bus, our guide greeted us all with a Russian chocolate bar. That was very nice of her.
At the cruise terminal, several gift shops were dealing in items designed to catch the eye of tourists. As usual, we found some refrigerator magnets.
After dinner that evening, we all went to a show. The entertainment was a troupe of 14 Russian dancers/singers. Seven band members accompanied them, playing authentic Russian instruments. The entire performance in Russian did not deter us from understanding what was happening. The eye-catching traditional costumes were colorful.
The following day, our canal tour was in the afternoon. After breakfast, it was the same drill through immigration and onto a bus. Our destination was close to the Hermitage Museum. It was very cloudy. The bus stopped so we could all get off. We faced about a two-block walk to the canal boat. Some of the walking was a little dicey, but we all made it safely. While walking, we saw a bride and groom stopping to take photos. Our guide told us it is normal for newlyweds to travel around the city, taking photographs at their favorite locations.
As we finished our walk, it began to drizzle. That did not stop me from taking photos. I kept clicking from under my umbrella. Shortly after the boat pulled away from the mooring, one of the workers brought us a complimentary glass of champagne, my kind of cruise!
Our boat departed its mooring on Moyka Canal. After passing the Japan Consulate, we took a quick right turn onto the canal that is on the east side of the Hermitage Museum. That canal led us to the Neva River. On the Neva, we turned to the west toward the Bolshaya Neva. I believe that means “little Neva” River. We cruised under the Dvortzovyy Most (bridge) and then under Biagoveshchenskiy Most. We made a U-turn back to the east, ultimately going under the Troitskiy Most. One right turn and we were on the Fontanka Canal. Our final right turn took us back to the Moyka Canal and our original mooring.
The bridges over the canals were extremely low. Some only had a total clearance of two meters, about six feet. If one were to stand while passing under, one would definitely lose body parts.
Just as we docked, the downpour began. It did not let up until we were back on the bus, of course. On the way back to the ship, we stopped by the Red October souvenir shop. Surprise, we bought another refrigerator magnet. Since there was still time to burn at that stop, I took a few photographs nearby.
When the bus arrived at the cruise terminal, it was about 17:00. Our seating time for dinner was 17:30. After exiting immigration, we discovered a very long line to board the ship. I think part of that was because the ship was due to depart at 17:30. We might have been a few minutes late for dinner that night, but it was no big deal.
Even though we spent a night on the ship in the port of St. Petersburg, we were only allowed off the boat if we were on a ship’s shore excursion. We wished we had been able to get off the ship and explore on our own, but it is what it is.
After dinner, I was able to stand on our balcony and take photographs of the Gulf of Finland. One of the highlights was the flood control dam. It is about 15 or 20 miles west of St. Petersburg. There are large motorized steel dams, which close in cases of flooding. At that location, a divided highway traverses under the water. The road is labeled KAO. I believe that is a ring road around the St. Petersburg area.
Just before the flood control dam, I saw a small island. There was a small humanmade harbor in the center. I found out later that this is Fort Kronshlot, built-in 1704 to fortify Russia from other Baltic states.
We watched a little TV in our room and then retired, ready to awake in Helsinki.
Lastly, below are random photographs I took as we rode around town on the bus going back and forth from the ship to our tours.
Around 05:00-ish, the Regal Princess smoothly glided northerly in the Outter Oslofjord, heading toward port in Oslo, Norway. It was very relaxing to sit on the balcony and watch the sights of the fjord silently slip by the ship. It was a long passage. We did not dock in Oslo until about 10:00 on this gray and rainy day. The temperature was somewhere around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and hazy with low cloud cover. The water had a blue-gray tint. The sea was very calm.
The previous night we slept with our balcony door wide open. I thought that was very comfortable. It was chilly, which made for good sleeping. We could hear the sound of the sea as the ship cut through the water. For me, that was very relaxing.
The scenery from our balcony was beautiful. Some areas were an utterly pristine forest, from the cloudy hilltops, ending at the rocky seashore. Some areas had houses interspersed throughout. Looking at several homes on a hillside reminded me of looking at houses on the hill in Cascade, Colorado. At one point, at the end of Oscarsborg island, there was a military gun emplacement. It is the Oscarsborg Fortress, charged with defending the seaward approach to Oslo.
Marinas, along with colorful buildings and homes, seemed to be everywhere. One must wonder just what life is like this far north.
From our balcony, once we had docked, we saw water taxis of various sizes and ferries continually moving to and from Oslo. We even saw a seaplane go by at one point. The weather did not seem to deter anyone on their travels.
When we got off the ship, we boarded one of the Hop-On-Hop-Off buses that were right by the cruise ship dock. It was raining very hard. We ended up getting off the bus near the royal palace. It was beautiful even though we did not go inside.
We tried to keep the perpetual rain from dampening our spirits. We ended up walking around the palace area of town, seeing some magnificent architecture such as the University of Oslo and the National Theater buildings.
We also saw the Oslo Radhus (city hall). It has an art deco style, no doubt due to construction beginning in 1931. This building is world-famous as the home of the annual Nobel Peace Prize ceremony that occurs every year on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. Probably the most eye-catching feature of the building is the astrological clock. The twelve signs of the zodiac are interspersed on the face of the clock. I must say with all of the hands; I was a little stumped on just how to tell the time.
Ultimately we found a store in which to do some shopping for Norway tourist junk. It was easy to find all of the “junk” we could ever want. We found refrigerator magnets, office magnets, moose lanyards, and even moose underwear!
Leaving the shopping behind, we stopped at a street-side cafe on Karl Johans Gate, Egon. Our server, Lorena, was amiable. She was actually from Grand Canary, in the Canary Islands of Spain. She said she had been in Oslo for only one week. When we inquired what had prompted her to come to Norway, she replied she had just gotten divorced. Regardless, she was very happy and quite keen to talk to us.
After having such a large breakfast on the ship, we were not yet hungry. Instead, we shared a pitcher of Ringnes, a Norwegian beer.
When we finished the beer, we got back on the bus and sat through numerous stops. We chose to see the sights from the bus, letting the others hop on and hop off. The bus drove through some rural areas with horses and cattle scattered in the lush green fields. It is a lovely country.
We got off the bus at the cruise ship dock. Directly across the street from the ship is Akershus Fortress and Castle. It cost about $7 for both of us to enter. It was still raining hard, so it was nice to be inside, dry and relatively warm.
The castle, built in 1300, offered a self-guided tour with headphones. Surprisingly, there was a lot of the palace open to visitors. I found it to be the “coziest” castle we have ever toured. I imagine that is due to the much smaller scale of this castle. For example, compared to the Palacio Real in Madrid, the Akershus Castle is more like a country retreat.
There is a royal guard at the main entrance to the castle. There is an active military base still on the grounds. The guard stands stoically, neither speaking or moving…until a tourist tried to pose for a photograph on his right side, his weapon side. He immediately motioned that she must stand on his left. Once that happened, he allowed several pictures.
The castle still houses the royal chapel. In the chapel, one can see the royal box or balcony. That is obviously where the royals sit when they attend services. The seating toward the front were individual chairs. Farther back were some traditional pews.
The royal mausoleum, as one might imagine, is directly below the chapel. Our visit to the crypt reminded me of our trip to El Escorial in Spain.
One of the oddest things I saw were two small pieces of stained glass in the Hall of Olav V. Most of the scenes were religious; however, two stood out. They each looked like characters from the Ghostbusters movie. That was a little strange for something dating from 1300.
When we left the castle, we boarded the ship to prepare for dinner.
Leslie and I took a boat from Alexandria to Mount Vernon. I had done that a year ago, but Leslie had never been there.
We took the Metro to the King Street station. It was too early for the free King Street Trolley, so we began looking for a taxi. While we were standing on the curb looking for a cab in the traffic, an unmarked vehicle pulled up. The driver asked us if we had called for a taxi. That was a little creepy. We said no and sent him on his way.
Shortly after that encounter, we were able to flag down a marked taxi, and the driver got us to the waterfront quickly since there was not much traffic at that hour.
The taxi dropped us off near The Torpedo Factory building. Since we had time, we decided to get a coffee and something to eat. We stopped at the first cafe we came to, and each ordered a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich. It took forever to make the sandwiches. When we finally got the sandwiches and coffee, we sat at a table right beside the marina. It was a beautiful sight. The lunch was not very good. Each one had just one link sausage split lengthwise. It was a good thing the view was so lovely.
We finished our breakfast, picked up our tickets, and waited to board the boat, the Miss Christin. Once aboard, we took the first two seats on the starboard side, near the captain.
As the boat pulled away, one of the crew picked up a microphone and began telling us stories and interesting tidbits as we motored along.
Our first stop after some fifteen minutes or so was National Harbor. The boat stopped at two different docks. We picked up some passengers at each stop. All totaled, our trip from Alexandria to Mount Vernon took about one hour.
Continuing down the river, one keeps looking for the first glimpse of the Mount Vernon estate. The first view from the river is a postcard spectacular.
When we disembarked, we received tickets for our tour of the mansion. Printed on the cards was the time, 12:30. That meant we could get in line for the mansion tour any time after 12:30. We walked from the dock to the shuttle bus. The shuttle took us to the visitor center. We opted to go to the gift shop first.
After a quick walk through the gift shop, we stopped in the cafeteria. A couple of slices of pizza later, and we were ready to stand in line to tour the mansion. First, I had to take a photo of the head of Washington in the back-lit glass. It turned out well.
Somewhere I heard Mount Vernon has over 1,000,000 visitors each year. With numbers like that, they have the tour down to a science. Every bit as iconic as the view of Mount Vernon from the Potomac River is the view of the mansion from the west side. The well-manicured lawn, the Bowling Green, makes it look particularly inviting.
From the time we began to stand in line until we entered the mansion was only about 15 minutes. Given the number of people there that day, I do not think it took very long.
Leslie summed up the tour the best; she said it gave her goosebumps. It is worth the trip to Mount Vernon. Readers interested in a virtual tour of Mount Vernon can click on the hyperlink.
When we left the mansion, we looked at a few of the outbuildings. Then we made our way to the piazza on the west side of the estate. The patio looks over the Potomac River. There are numerous chairs on the veranda. We sat there for 15 or 20 minutes. It was very relaxing. We could imagine the Father of our Country sitting there enjoying a cigar or pipe after dinner with friends. That is a part of history that not everyone gets to enjoy.
Descending from the mansion area toward the Mount Vernon Wharf, we stopped to pay our respects at the Washington crypt. It is both eerie and fascinating.
A little farther below the crypt is the monument to the slaves. I had not viewed the memorial on my previous visit. I am not sure what I was expecting, but I found it to be a little disappointing.
At the pier, as we waited for our boat to take us back to Alexandria, we saw a fireboat come by the dock. There seemed to be no reason in particular.
Something else at the pier that caught our eye was a Golden Retriever. The dog was so used to people that all of the comings and goings did not phase it one bit. The dog reminded us of our beloved Biscuit.
We made it back to Alexandria at about 17:30. The King Street Trolley was operating, so we hopped on. We took it to the King Street Metro station.
Right across the street from the Metro station is Joe Theisman’s Restaurant. That is where we decided to have dinner. It was just as good as I remembered from my trip there a few years ago. Leslie enjoyed the dinner.
We got back to the Metro station just in time to see the sun going down behind the Masonic Temple.